State will not proceed with Brighton Park camp for Chicago migrants after environmental review

Mayor Brandon Johnson has said migrants in Chicago would be housed in winterized tents as temps drop

ByMichelle Gallardo, Craig Wall, Liz Nagy, and ABC7 Chicago Digital Team WLS logo
Wednesday, December 6, 2023
State will not proceed with Brighton Park migrant camp after review
As the Chicago migrant crisis continues, the state will not proceed with a camp for migrants in Brighton Park after an environmental review.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- The coverage on this story has moved here.

The state will not proceed with an asylum seeker shelter in Brighton Park after an environmental review, a news release from the governor's office said Tuesday.

My administration is committed to keeping asylum seekers safe
Gov. JB Pritzker

"IEPA would not approve the proposed Brighton Park site for residential use, based on our regulatory standards for remediation of contaminated properties," Illinois EPA Director John J. Kim said. "The well-being of residents and workers at the site is our highest priority, and current and planned site conditions do not adequately reduce risks of human exposure to known and potential environmental conditions."

IEPA cited concerns related to insufficient soil sampling and remediation.

"Given the significant time required to conduct additional sampling, to process and analyze results, and to implement corresponding further remediation, the state will work with the city to identify alternate shelter options," a news release from Gov. JB Pritzker's office said.

News of the cancellation was a welcome relief to residents here who have opposed the idea of having a large-scale migrant camp in their backyard for several weeks now.

But, the political fallout is just beginning as a blame game between the mayor and the governor begins as to who is at fault for this entire fiasco.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson did not offer a clear answer on Tuesday as to whether the city has another migrant camp location in mind.

It's been nearly seven weeks of nonstop controversy, protests and accusations leveled against elected officials. And now, millions of dollars and an 800-page environmental report later, the state has pulled the plug on the Brighton Park site that was destined to become a winterized base camp for up to 2,000 migrants.

"We will not proceed with housing families on a site where serious environmental concerns are still present. The remediation implemented thus far do not satisfy IEPA standards and are insufficient," the state said, in part.

"The state of Illinois knew that this assessment was happening and felt confident enough to continue to build on this site and to go into a contract with Gardaworld," said Mayor Brandon Johnson. "The state did not provide any additional guidelines or any sort of methodology in which they were requiring us to go by."

Pritzker spoke before the IEPA decision was released, suggesting that the city could have picked a different place for the base camp.

"We don't pick the sites in the city, right, the city has sites that it has made available. This is the one that they had pointed to and wanted to focus on. These are for asylum-seekers, and making sure that they're kept from the elements as it gets colder and colder," Pritzker said.

While the governor's and mayor's offices point fingers in each other's direction, residents and their attorneys on Tuesday clearly hold both responsible.

"They had this information at least a month ago, and they continued to build," said Brighton Park resident Richard Zupkus. "I'm really grateful somebody finally got some sense."

"We wasted tons of money. Our tax dollars have disappeared," said Frank Avila, an attorney for Brighton Park residents. "It was incompetence. It was poor communication, poor planning, poor management. It's a waste of money."

Alderwoman Julia Ramirez, who represents the 12th Ward, said on Tuesday that better decisions should have been made from the very beginning.

"As manufacturing-zoned area that shouldn't have ever been considered. And so, looking forward, I think that should use be something they don't move forward with if a place is zone for heavy manufacturing," Ramirez said. "It is unacceptable to proceed without a comprehensive assessment of the health risks. We are pleased to see the halt of construction and the continued work towards assessing the safety of this site."

The question now is what happens moving forward. The state said it will expedite plans to open a shelter for up to 200 people, including families and those with disabilities, at a shuttered CVS in Little Village at 27th and Pulaski.

"Most recently, the site was a CVS. So, the bones are there to house people in a very ethical way," said Alderman Mike Rodriguez, who represents the 22nd Ward. "We're very open for specialized populations, pregnant mothers and children with special needs, potentially, to be at this space."

Johnson, meanwhile would not rule out placing a winterized base camp elsewhere in the city. The mayor said the city will continue looking at other locations for brick and mortar shelters and winterized tents, including a plot of land at 115th and Halsted.

"Whether it's 115 in Austin, or 38th in California, or any other brick and mortar location that we've identified that can serve the purpose of this mission, know that my administration is planning ahead," Johnson said.

The mayor was asked three separate times on Tuesday what his "Plan B" is, and there was no clear answer as to whether the city has another outdoor location in mind for a base camp location that could replace the Brighton Park site.

"The mission is still very much alive. I've said from the very beginning, especially as winter is approaching and weather is shifting is to get people out of police stations," Johnson said. "As other folks have asked for Plan B, I've been planning for Plan B, C and D and E and F from the very moment that I became the mayor of the city of Chicago."

The state also said they are working with the Archdiocese of Chicago to identify other brick and mortar sites that might be quickly turned over for use as shelters during the winter months.

"My administration is committed to keeping asylum seekers safe as we work to help them achieve independence," Pritzker said. "We will not proceed with housing families on a site where serious environmental concerns are still present. My administration remains committed to a data-driven plan to improve the asylum seeker response and we will continue to coordinate with the city of Chicago as we work to expand available shelter through winter."

Right now, there are more than 13,000 migrants in 26 city shelters, and 615 people are awaiting placement.

"As we continue to roll people out of police districts, that assignment that I've given to my administration, we're working through that," Johnson said.

The governor office said they will now work with the city to identify an alternative location to set up a winterized base camp, but Tuesday's ruling by the IEPA has set that effort back by weeks.